As a physician, empathy is a critical skill that helps you build trust with your patients and has a great impact on your career.
Some doctors are naturally more empathetic than others, but this skill can be developed with attention to a few key areas like listening, maintaining curiosity about a patient’s life and experiences, showing support, paying attention to body language, and making continuous efforts to put yourself in a patient’s shoes.
Miriam Knoll, medical director of the department of radiation oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center/Mountainside finds that many doctors don’t necessarily lack empathy, but they lack the skills needed to convey the empathy they are feeling.1 If this is something you can relate to, you have a few options available outside of your normal practice.
Specialized courses are one avenue. Jeremy Force, a first-year oncology fellow at Duke University Medical Center used the skills he learned in a one-day clinical empathy course called Oncotalk to listen to an exhausted and worried terminally ill patient, acknowledge her struggles, and help her understand how entering hospice may provide her with additional support. When he bumped into the patient a few days later in the halls of the hospital, the patient told him that he had been the best physician she ever had.
“I was blown away,” he told Kaiser Health News. “It was such an honor.”2
You can also build the awareness and intuition that are central to empathy by engaging in medical volunteer opportunities. This could mean working with a marginalized population at a hospital or local clinic where you take time to listen and understand your patients’ experiences or spending a week volunteering at a local or overseas clinic that provides community health services to an underserved population.
Former Rutgers New Jersey Medical School student Natalie Sous spent time volunteering as a patient navigator at a cancer center where she helped connect patients with support groups and other resources.3 While there, she learned how important it was for patients to have someone to talk and tell their stories to.
“As physicians we will see patients with illnesses we cannot cure,” she told the Gold Foundation. “However, even when medicine falls short, we can improve quality of life simply through our presence and support.”4
You can also build the awareness and intuition that are central to empathy by engaging in medical volunteer opportunities.
John Kolkin, an orthopedic surgeon at Raleigh Hand Center, has found great value in twenty years of volunteer work with Health Volunteers Overseas. He says this type of work nurtures compassion and sensitivity.4
“Humanitarian work can be an extremely rewarding experience for the volunteer and those we wish to serve,” he said. “It can enhance one’s ability to think creatively, adapt to unfamiliar circumstances, reinforce the value of respecting other points-of-view, broaden our cultural experience, and enhance our compassion, humility, and patience.”4
Through these volunteer and learning experiences, medical professionals have been able to use empathy to establish trust, which is increasingly cited as a crucial element in a doctor patient relationship. Patients are known to seek empathy and many say empathetic doctors leave them feeling understood, validated, and heard.5 6 Meanwhile, patient feedback spreads quickly through online review sites, and your reputation can grow. According to research group softwareadvice.com, 72% of respondents report using online reviews as a first step to seeking a provider. But that’s not all, research shows that empathy makes a physician’s work more meaningful.7 8
As a healthcare practitioner, engaging in volunteer experiences that build empathy may help you find a deeper connection with your work, while also help you build your network and your resume.
 Oncotalk: Helping Physicians Practice the Art of Medicine. (2016, May 18). Retrieved from https://connection.asco.org/blogs/oncotalk-helping-physicians-practice-art-medicine
 Boodman, S. G. (2015, March 16). Efforts To Instill Empathy Among Doctors Are Paying Dividends. Retrieved from https://khn.org/news/efforts-to-instill-empathy-among-doctors-is-paying-dividends/
 Meet our Medical Student Bloggers. (2015, January 06). Retrieved from https://www.gold-foundation.org/introductions-2013-medical-student-bloggers/
 Kolkin, J. (2018). A Physician’s Perspective on Volunteering Overseas… It Is Not All about Sharing the Latest Technology. Frontiers in Surgery,4. doi:10.3389/fsurg.2017.00077
 Halpern, J. (2003). What is clinical empathy? Journal of General Internal Medicine,18(8), 670-674. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.21017.x
 Sinclair, S., Beamer, K., Hack, T. F., Mcclement, S., Bouchal, S. R., Chochinov, H. M., & Hagen, N. A. (2016). Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences. Palliative Medicine,31(5), 437-447. doi:10.1177/0269216316663499